A heart, a liver, and a nurse walk into a bar…

By Sara Leiter

Introduction– Who I really am

•I was a curious child and spent a lot of time playing outside, as well as “caring” for my large stuffed animal collection. I also played with Legos, and, admittedly, became quite addicted to playing Tetris. Anything involving numbers was a favorite subject of mine, so ending up in STEM was not a surprise. What I wanted to do as a grown up changed frequently—architect, veterinarian, genetics researcher.

In my free time, I enjoy cycling, running and other activities that get me outside! I also love scary movies.

Materials and Methods– How I got here

Degrees can only tell you so much about a person’s STEM career, here’s my actual journey:

•I learned about organ donation as a child and thought it was the coolest thing ever—to be able to “reuse” a person’s organs after they died, to save other peoples’ lives!  But I never considered a career in organ donation—I didn’t even realize such a thing existed.

After nursing school I found myself working in a Neuro-Trauma ICU. There, we cared for patients with a variety of illnesses: seizure disorders, strokes, spinal cord injuries, brain cancer, traumatic brain injuries. Periodically, our patients were declared brain dead and became organ donors. Brain death is different from cardiac death (the kind of death frequently seen on TV shows, where the heart rate monitor becomes a flat line). In brain death, patients can look “alive,” because they are still breathing and their heart is beating, but there is no blood flow to their brain. The body is being kept alive because the heart keeps beating as long as it receives oxygen, and oxygen is provided by the ventilator (breathing machine). Brain death is not the same as coma, because in brain death, the body has no reflexes AT ALL—no eye blinking, no breathing, no movement. Brain death is, legally, the same as cardiac death.

Anyway, I had the honor of taking care of an organ donor patient when she was in my ICU. It was one of the most meaningful patient experiences I had ever had as a nurse, and am still in touch with her family. While I was caring for her, I met the representatives from the organ donation organization. To my surprise, they told me they had been nurses prior to working for their current employer. I had no idea “organ donation nurses” even existed.

Two years ago I applied to be an Organ Recovery Coordinator with the organization here in Colorado, Donor Alliance. I wanted to pursue my passion for organ donation and make a difference in the donor families’ lives, as well as the lives of the organ recipients.

Results– What I do now

Right now, I am focusing on my job as an Organ Recovery Coordinator. We do…

•There is no “typical day” in my job. My organization covers all of Colorado and most of Wyoming, so I travel to hospitals in both the Denver metro area and elsewhere. One day I may be in Colorado Springs, two days later I may be in Grand Junction. My job is also on-call, or “as needed,” so I work unusual hours. I may be up for 26 hours straight sometimes!

Some of my job duties require traveling to the hospital to assess potential organ donors. I decide what tests may be run on them (for example, chest X-rays, CT scans, particular labs) to evaluate their organ function. I work with my medical director to see what medications we should give the patient to optimize their organ function. Other duties include speaking with transplant surgeons, entering data on the computer, coordinating the OR time, and educating the patients’ families and hospital staff. I work with transplant centers to see if their patients are interested in the organs. Finally, I actually go into the OR for the recovery procedure to help ensure everything goes smoothly as it can get quite chaotic—usually there are several doctors, and everybody is moving quickly! After cases I present the case information to my peers and also perform audits (checking the data to make sure everything was entered).


– Passion for the subject

I love science and medicine, and here’s why:

•To this day, it still amazes me that we are able to take organs from one person’s body and place them in another person. Technology is advancing every day to improve this process. For example, there are kidney pumps, which enable doctors to evaluate how the kidneys are functioning outside the body before putting them into the recipient. Kidneys are such strong little organs that they can continue working outside the body for 24 hours! They actually travel on commercial planes by themselves (in a box, with the appropriate packaging, of course!). Researchers are working on similar devices for hearts and lungs to optimize those organs as well, since they are very sensitive to being taken out of the body.

In addition, donation is not limited to organs. People may also be skin, eye and tissue donors. These gifts can make a huge change in one’s life.

For more information on organ donation, go to donatelife.net.

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